Fossil fuels are mixtures of various chemicals, including small amounts of sulfur. The sulfur in the fuel reacts with oxygen to form sulfur dioxide (SO2), which is an air pollutant. The main source of SO2 is the electric power plants that burn high-sulfur coal. The Clean Air Act of 1970 has limited the SO2 emissions severely, which forced the plants to install SO2 scrubbers, to switch to low-sulfur coal, or to gasify the coal and recover the sulfur. Motor vehicles also contribute to SO2 emissions since gasoline and diesel fuel also contain small amounts of sulfur. Volcanic eruptions and hot springs also release sulfur oxides (the cause of the rotten egg smell).
The sulfur oxides and nitric oxides react with water vapor and other chemicals high in the atmosphere in the presence of sunlight to form sulfuric and nitric acids (Fig. 2–65). The acids formed usually dissolve in the suspended water droplets in clouds or fog. These acid-laden droplets, which can be as acidic as lemon juice, are washed from the air on to the soil by rain or snow. This is known as acid rain. The soil is capable of neutralizing a certain amount of acid, but the amounts produced by the power plants using inexpensive high-sulfur coal has exceeded this capability, and as a result many lakes and rivers in industrial areas such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan have become too acidic for fish to grow. Forests in those areas also experience a slow death due to absorbing the acids through their leaves, needles, and roots. Even marble structures deteriorate due to acid rain. The magnitude of the problem was not recognized until the early 1970s, and serious measures have been taken since then to reduce the sulfur dioxide emissions drastically by installing scrubbers in plants and by desulfurizing coal before combustion.
Reference: Thermodynamics – An Engineering Approach 5th Edition by: Yunus A. Cengel and Michale A. Boles